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Monday
Apr122010

Stories Untold: An Interview with The Idea of North Editor, Peter Shewchuk

By Penny Johnson, Contributing Author

Through my friendship with Lorne Tulk, former CBC technician and long-time friend of Glenn Gould, I had the opportunity recently to speak with Peter Shewchuk.  One of several editors who worked with Gould and Tulk on The Idea of North (1967) – the first of a three-part series of radio documentaries made for the CBC and known as The Solitude Trilogy – Shewchuk was responsible for editing the epilogue that occurs in the fiftieth minute, a segment combining the voice of the narrator, Wally Maclean, summing up the power and significance of the northern Canadian landscape, while pitted against the luscious harmonies of the finale from the fifth symphony of Jean Sibelius. 

While his time with Gould was short-lived, the memories and impact of collaborating with the genius has left an indelible mark on the mind of 70-year old Shewchuk.  “I felt quite privileged to work on the last bit of The Idea of North,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Peterborough.  “When I heard it, my mouth just dropped, as I was in complete awe over the way Glenn integrated the voice of the narrator to the music.  His use of the voice was absolutely brilliant.” 

Using the inflection, lyricism, and cadential pacing of each of the five speakers [James Lotz, Frank Valee, Marianne Schroeder, Robert Phillips, and Wally Maclean] much in the same way that Arnold Schoenberg employed sprechstimme (spoken song) in his Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Gould was literally “orchestrating the voices,” explains Shewchuk.  “Glenn gave the editors diagrams showing where the voices would go – we all had our own page which we worked on in isolation – and I was struck by how carefully everything had been scripted.  People didn’t understand the complex relationship of the voice to the music, this concept of contrapuntal radio.  In fact, when the program was first aired, it was logged as crosstalk and there was much criticism over the fact that voices were sounding simultaneously.  On the contrary however, you really have to listen very carefully and be quite intelligent and astute.”

The concept of Gould’s attachment to all things contrapuntal – music, radio, and life itself for that matter – was a subject that came up during the course of the conversation.  As in the artistic interpretations of Gould where he knew what every voice was doing at any given moment, so too in matters concerning world issues and daily affairs was he knowledgeable about all sides of an argument.  “He had an incredible mind,” recalls Shewchuk, “always reading newspapers and such, and his memory was impeccable.  He was a man of great depth of interest in individuals, and his exploration of music was the same way.  I’m sure it has a parallel with the rest of his life.”

A deeply moral human being, Gould felt tremendous compassion for those in need.  At the time of his death in 1982 for example, he left his estate to the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society.  It is evident then, that the musical socialism permeating Gould’s creative output was not the result of a rebel at odds with modern conventions, but rather a response to his innate sense of moral obligation towards humanity. 

In The Idea of North for example, massive amounts of editing were required to integrate the content of each speaker, a task that could in no way have been achieved at random.  “Every word of every speaker had to integrate itself to one another,” recalls Shewchuk.  “I suspect that the opening train sequence was done with many tracks, because you had to feed every one of them.  It wasn’t just a matter of feeding arbitrarily either, but rather it was all well planned out to the key words being spoken, which then had to co-relate with all of the dialogue.  It required an awful lot of attention.  There were also many typists at work.  All of the recorded material from the speakers had to be transcribed before the editors could do anything. The editing process itself was fairly straightforward.  Editing voices was very common, and most technicians knew how to do this.”

Lorne Tulk (back) with Peter Shewchuk at CKFH, Toronto 1958. Photo courtesy Lorne Tulk.

Born in the northwestern Ontario town of Kenora in 1939, Shewchuk was an ideal fit to work on The Idea of North.  After arriving in Toronto in 1958 where he enrolled in a program of electronic studies at Devry Technical Institute, he took up a position at CKFH, the Toronto-based radio station established in 1951 by Foster Hewitt.  “By the early 1960s,” Shewchuk says, “I was working in the tech department at CBC, which is where I met Lorne.  I remember my interview, where they asked if I could read music.  I had studied piano and clarinet in school, and so they shipped me over to Massey Hall where we worked on live TSO radio broadcasts with Seiji Ozawa conducting.”  Shewchuk adds with a chuckle that “score reading proved very handy, and it was great fun flipping pages and turning knobs!  In those days we didn’t have compressors or limiters however, and so we had to control bandwidth levels manually, scanning ahead in the conductor’s score for loud passages.” 

By 1966-67, Shewchuk, who later went on to do film work including a documentary about Swedish tennis superstar, Björn Borg, and The Third Testament with Malcolm Muggeridge – not to mention a few seasons of my own personal childhood favourite, Road to Avonlea – was recommended by Tulk to assist Gould with The Idea of North.  By that time, Shewchuk had experience in the Canadian North having already been to Apek Hill (Frobisher Bay) and Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

Arguably, the concept of being a northerner is a permanent part of the Canadian psyche.  As Shewchuk explains, “Gould was doing in The Idea of North what all Canadians do…looking upon their place in this planet and this country, and wondering how we got here, who has been here, and what went before.  We are still a young country compared to everyone else, and so there is a tendency amongst artists – consider the Group of Seven for example – to reflect upon the solitude of our rugged landscapes.  I think a lot of us are attracted to the north, and the nostalgic romanticism that it evokes.”

Gould’s identity as a Canadian was truly at the heart of The Idea of North, a documentary broadcast in December of 1967 as part of the Canadian centennial celebration.  “Glenn was very much identifying as a Canadian by choosing the north as an example of solitude.  He was reacting to our lakes, rivers, and ice the way any artist would.”

Click here for an excerpt from The Idea of North from CBC Digital Archives.

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